Chris Ratzloff and Mike Aikens know how to build a hockey team.
They proved that a year ago when they led a second-year North American 3 Hockey League franchise to a championship in the league’s toughest division. The Rochester Grizzlies went 37-8-2 and had their sights set on a berth in the Fraser Cup -- the league’s championship playoffs -- only to have those hopes derailed when the COVID-19 pandemic halted the postseason just as it was set to begin.
That abrupt end to a dominant season only serves as motivation for the team’s coaching staff and veteran players, who are gathered at the Rochester Recreation Center this weekend -- along with a few dozen other roster hopefuls -- for the Grizzlies’ main tryout camp.
The framework of the 2020-21 team will be set by Sunday afternoon, and the team’s returning players will be expected to lead the way.
“Just like last year they’re going to have to step up and carry the load at the beginning, until the younger guys get adjusted to junior hockey,” said Ratzloff, who enters his second season as the Grizzlies’ head coach. “(The veterans) will have to help those guys learn along the way. That’s what we expect out of them every year. It’s part of taking that next step. They come, they learn, then they lead, then they leave … that’s the goal, to move them on.”
Close to 90 players are in Rochester this weekend, divided into six teams. That group will be trimmed to about 30 players after Sunday afternoon’s camp All-Star Game. That’s the nucleus of the team that will begin the NA3HL season on Oct. 2. The Grizzlies will take next week off, then begin training camp on Aug. 31, giving them a month to ramp up to the season opener.
“I don’t know that our roster will be set (by Sunday),” Ratzloff said. “We want to use the next 30 days after this to get set, but at least we want to get a good group to take into training camp. We want to give them a little extra time to get in shape. … We can’t really evaluate them in the first week. We’ll let them get acclimated and then see how they compete.”
PLENTY OF PRECAUTIONS
This year’s main tryout camp has a different look, a different feel than it has the past two years. Hand shakes and hugs were replaced by fist bumps and temperature checks on Friday afternoon as players checked in for the weekend.
Much like the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League did at their tryout camp last month, the Grizzlies are putting every precaution possible in place to protect players and staff this weekend. Players must go through a COVID screening and temperature check each day before entering the Rec Center. Locker rooms are locked, so players will dress in their cars in the parking lot, then put on their skates and helmets at ice level, prior to their time on the ice.
Many of the players at this weekend’s camp have had limited access to ice this summer, as rinks across the country have been shut down. That will alter the way the Grizzlies’ coaches evaluate them, too.
“We have to kind of rely on what we’ve seen of them in the past,” Ratzloff said. “The good thing about our camp being so late in the summer is that a lot of these guys have been to different camps, so they’ve been on the ice in the past month, whether it was training at home or going to other teams’ camps. At least they’ve been on the ice.”
MOVING PLAYERS UP
The Grizzlies expect some key veterans back from last season’s NA3HL Central Division title team, but they have also moved some players on.
Forwards Matt DeRosa (St. Cloud) and Peyton Hart (Austin Bruins) showed well in NAHL tryout camps over the past few weeks and are expected to be with those teams for most of, if not all of, this season. Mathias Backstrom, the 2019-20 NA3HL Goalie of the Year, is off to Nichols College in Maine, while defensemen Michael Heitkamp (Wisconsin-Stout) and Noel Parker (St. Olaf), and forwards Porter Haney (St. Olaf) and Jesper Hofling (St. Olaf) are also moving on to college teams.
“Our first year, everybody was like ‘OK, they’re pretty good down there, they’re doing a good job,’” Aikens, entering his third season as a Grizzlies’ assistant coach, said, “then with what we did last year, everybody now is like ‘OK, we know we can send a player there and they’re going to get developed. It’s a great city, a good organization, there’s not a bad thing about it.’
“I think the trust is there from coaches to send players here and know with Rat, those players will get developed.”
The Grizzlies coaches and scouts scour the country, attending showcases, scouting games in-season and watching the tryout camps of NAHL teams.
They signed players from seven different states to tender agreements last spring, including players from California, Colorado and Washington. But they have locked up some of the top local talent, too.
Among the players who signed tenders with the Grizzlies are Rochester Century’s Gavin Gunderson and Sam Williams, John Marshall’s Shawn Sutton, Winona’s Roman Grulkowski and Owatonna’s Zach Wiese and Collin Pederson.
“Most of them came and skated with us after their high school seasons last year,” Ratzloff said. “We’ve had them with our players and we know they’re either close (to being ready for junior hockey) or they’re someone we can work with.”
The Grizzlies’ main tryout camp continues with games all day Saturday and throughout the morning and afternoon on Sunday, capped with a Futures All-Star Game (for young players who could join the team this season or in future seasons) and a main All-Star Game.
“The other thing,” Aikens said, “there could be guys who show up here this weekend, kids we’ve had minimal contact with and they come here and … we’re looking for some surprises.”